Blog Tour/Book Review: Paris in the Dark by Robert Olen Butler

I’m thrilled to be hosting today’s stop on the blog tour for Paris in the Dark by Pulitzer Prize winning author, Robert Olen Butler.  Described as ‘fleetly plotted and engaging’ and ‘a page-turning novel of unmistakable literary quality’, Paris in the Dark is the fourth instalment in the author’s ‘Christopher Marlowe Cobb’ historical thriller series.

My grateful thanks to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in the tour and to No Exit Press for my review copy.

Paris in the DarkAbout the Book

Autumn 1915. The First World War is raging across Europe. Woodrow Wilson has kept Americans out of the trenches, although that hasn’t stopped young men and women from crossing the Atlantic to volunteer at the front. Christopher Marlowe ‘Kit’ Cobb, a Chicago reporter and undercover agent for the US government is in Paris when he meets an enigmatic nurse called Louise. Officially in the city for a story about American ambulance drivers, Cobb is grateful for the opportunity to get to know her but soon his intelligence handler, James Polk Trask, extends his mission. Parisians are meeting ‘death by dynamite’ in a new campaign of bombings, and the German-speaking Kit seems just the man to discover who is behind this – possibly a German operative who has infiltrated with the waves of refugees? And so begins a pursuit that will test Kit Cobb, in all his roles, to the very limits of his principles, wits and talents for survival.

Format: Paperback, ebook (256 pp.)    Publisher: No Exit Press
Published: 25th October 2018        Genre: Historical Fiction, Crime, Thriller

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Find Paris in the Dark on Goodreads

My Review

Finding out a book is set in the First World War immediately conjures up thoughts for me of the trenches of the Western Front, not the cafes and sidewalks of Paris.  Therefore, one of the many things I enjoyed about Paris in the Dark is its depiction of Paris as its citizens would have experienced it in the Autumn of 1915: the influx of refugees, the food shortages, the threat of Zeppelin attacks.  In fact, the Parisians are ‘in the dark’.  They’re being kept there deliberately by their government’s censorship of the press for fear of civil unrest or loss of morale if the citizens learn about the risk from saboteurs, not to mention the truth about the situation on the front line.  As Kit’s spymaster boss, Trask, observes: “If the Germans can bring the battle to the restaurants and the theatres and the front doors of the Parisians, if they can turn women and children and boulevardiers into bomb fodder, they might make some progress in this war.”

The thriller element of the book is set against the backdrop of the political situation of the time with many unhappy about President Woodrow Wilson’s unwillingness to deploy United States forces to the front line.  The implications of what Kit believes he has uncovered as his enquiries progress become more than just a simple investigation into acts of sabotage; they touch on national identity and geopolitics.

As events unfold, Kit’s professional and personal life also start to overlap and the risks he runs become no longer just a calculation that involve him alone.  Kit prides himself on his journalistic ‘nose’ for telling if someone is truthful or trustworthy but it turns out he’s not infallible.  If he was wrong once, perhaps he’s wrong now?

Throughout the book I loved the author’s spare writing style and his deft touch with description.  ‘And I realized that the air had gone chill.  Winter was reconnoitering Paris once again.’  In the breathlessly exhilarating penultimate chapter,  in which Kit is forced to face his deepest, darkest fears, there’s a tour de force of a paragraph in which the author switches from his customary short sentences in a way that brilliantly conveys the dramatic events being described.

I also enjoyed the way the book explores the theme of performance.  For example, the use of theatrical metaphors to convey the sense that individuals adopt many roles, Kit included. ‘For my country, to do my job, I have played roles with a number of people, deceived them, lied to them.’   At times, playing a role involves Kit adopting an actual disguise drawing on the experience of his childhood spent in theatres.    Even when acting in his ‘official’ capacity as a journalist, Kit finds himself adopting a persona, expressing opinions and asking questions in such a way as to get the answer he needs, or that will make good copy.  The theme is deployed humorously as well, such as when Kit is drawn into conversation about his his actress mother. ‘Mama had taken over the stage, as she was wont to do.  Though, to be fair, it was I who’d spoken her entry line.’

Paris in the Dark is the first book I’ve read by Robert Olen Butler.  I thought it was absolutely brilliant.  It ticked all the boxes for me of what I look for in a historical fiction novel: gripping plot, skilful writing, intriguing characters and a fascinating period setting.  At only 252 pages, its size definitely puts it in the ‘read in one sitting’ category but, frankly, even at  twice the size I think I’d have struggled to put it down.    It’s certainly a contender for one of my favourite reads this month, if not this year.  In Robert Olen Butler’s bio below it states that he’s published seventeen novels.  Guess what?  My wish-list just increased by sixteen.

I received a review copy courtesy of publishers, No Exit Press, and Random Things Tours.

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In three words: Compelling, taut, clever

Try something similar…A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway or Mr. Standfast by John Buchan

Robert Olen Butler Author PictureAbout the Author

Robert Olen Butler is one of America’s most highly regarded writers, having published 17 novels, 6 short story collections, and a book on the creative process. Among his numerous awards is the Pulitzer Prize which he won for A Good Scent for a Strange Mountain. Four of his novels are historical espionage thrillers in the Christopher Marlowe Cobb series, a character far closer to Robert than any other he has written. Like ‘Kit’ Cobb, Robert also went to war, was part of the military intelligence and a reporter and editor at an investigative business newspaper. Robert is also a widely admired and sought after university teacher of creative writing and counts among his former students another Pulitzer Prize winner.

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